Did you know that the homer is a way to measure volume? No it’s nothing to do with The Simpsons. It’s an ancient Hebrew way of measuring liquids or dry goods, like the modern gallon or liter. The Bible says that God brought the Israelites many homers worth of birds to eat when they were starving in the desert. Sometimes it’s fun, not to mention educational, to look deeper into what has been written. Lets do that for this bit of the bible. How many birds did god send these hungry people get and how many did they take? Far too many, and God got angry about it, but more about that later.
First of all what kind of bird are we talking about here. When I think of quails I picture the silly little thing in Warner Brothers cartoons that’s always waddling along with it’s chicks in a line behind. It has a top knot of feathers that sticks out of the top of it’s head and falls forward into it’s eyes that it has to constantly blow out of the way so it can see where it’s going. That is a California Quail. Or course the Israelites were a long way from California. They were crossing the Sinai Peninsula, in modern Egypt. It splits the northern end of the Red Sea into the Gulf of Suez and Gulf of Aqaba.
In this part of the world there is the Common Quail (Coturnix Coturnix). It’s a member of the pheasant family so it’s probably pretty good eating. However it’s not very big, a little over 7 inches long on average and generally only weighs about 4oz. Thankfully this isn’t an endangered species, it’s a very widespread bird that you can find anywhere in Europe, Asia, and Africa. There is no shortage of these birds to eat, but as you’ll see below there must have been a lot more of them around in Moses’ day then there are today.
So we know what kind of bird we’re talking about and how big they are. But how many birds are in a homer? My pocket reference guide says that a homer is 220 liters, that’s about 58 gallons. So “he that gathered least” gathered 580 gallons of little birds, 18 garbage cans full. That’s about 3 cubic yards of birds, or enough to fill the bed of a full sized pickup truck to overflowing, mounded high with little dead birdy bodies.
So how many birds is that? Well we have a bit of data on our side. As you probably know airplanes and birds don’t get along. When one hits the other bad things can happen. Engineers who design planes need to account for the fact that a bird is going to smack into the plane from time to time. And design the plane in such a way that birds won’t break it. Of course to do this they need to know the density of a bird. It’s all about density. You can imagine how a plane hitting a 1 pound brick is a lot bigger deal than if it were to hit a 1 pound bag of feathers. The different between the two impacts is that a brick has a very high density and a bag of feathers has a very low density. Our birds should be somewhere in the middle of those density extremes. If we can figure out the density of the birds we can figure out how many birds and how many pounds of birds would fit in a 10 homer container.
The Bible, King James Version, Numbers 11:31-32; “And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. -- And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.”
However the aerospace industry doesn’t use quails, California Animated or otherwise, for it’s testing. They use an even more common, and flightless, bird, the chicken. It might not make sense at first thought to use a flightless bird in designing airplanes. But In testing they use frozen chickens, heck if a plane can stand up to a frozen chicken from the grocery store it shouldn’t have problem with a 4oz quail. Thankfully a lot of other types of birds have been studied over the years, many with airplane strikes in mind, and so density measurements were taken. Lucky for us in 1967 a couple of researchers measured the density of 70 quails of the same type that God brought to the israelites. We’re in! They got an average density of 0.98gm/cm3. They had some other birds in their study too but nowhere near as many other species as there were common quails. This number should be close enough.
If we do a bit of math we see that 10 homers is equal to about 220,000cm3, and at 0.98gm/cm3 that works out to about 1900 birds, weighing about 475 pounds. You might assume that “he who gathered least” would be the sick, the wounded and the old. However this part of the bible pretty much ignores everyone except the able bodied soldiers. Twice in Numbers God tells Moses to perform a census of, “all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, throughout their fathers' house, all that are able to go to war in Israel.” So we’re going to do like Moses and assume that all the women are making cook fires, plucking feathers and dressing birds. And that all the kids are busy playing games on their iSlates. And not count them. We’ll assume only the warriors are gathering birds.
The bible doesn’t tell us who got the record for most birds gathered, it only gives of the lowest number. So for simplicity we’ll just use with that 10 homers per soldier estimate. How many soldiers are there? Each census came up about the same at 600,000. Yes, six hundred thousand able bodied men. That’s a city the size of Las Vegas full of nothing but men over 20 able to fight. If we assume that able bodied man made up about ¼ the population then we’re talking about 2.4 million people, or a little less than the population of Chicago, marching across the desert.
600,000 men times 1900 birds per man works out to 1.14 billion birds! That would fill well over 525 olympic swimming pools. The bible goes on to tell us what they did with these birds, “they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.” One person’s birds would cover the floor of a square room 15ft on a side. These 600,000 men would have had to cover 3195 acres with little bird corpses laid side by side. If you laid these birds beak to tail they would go around the earth five times. And the bible tells us they did it all in a day and night!
This would seem extreme to anyone. It seems doubtful even the most ambitious family could clean and cook (or otherwise preserve) 1900 birds before they went bad, especially when 599,999 other families are trying to do the same thing all around you. I imagine that firewood would have been at a premium in the desert even before it was time to cook a billion birds. God seems to have felt the same way and things soon turned bad for the bird hoarders, “And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.”
Even if you are a devout christian you probably have some trouble believing the above numbers. For instance 2.4 million people crossing the desert probably isn’t possible, there would be no way to feed and water them. The Persian Army was said to have 220,000 soldiers and Herodotus tells us that they drank the rivers dry. Also 1.14 billion birds, that’s 7 times how many common quails are thought to be alive today.
Most biblical scholars believe these numbers to be either a mistake or a literary fiction. And there is nothing wrong with that. The Bible is trying to teach a lesson here, and it’s using exaggeration to do it. Exaggeration, simile and metaphor are great teaching tools. Most countries have a long history of tall tales. And while few of us believe that Johnny Appleseed is responsible for spreading the apple in the west all by himself, or that Pecos Bill tamed the west, they are still good narratives that teach what an individual person might do if they work hard enough. Most parents have said, “Don’t put your fingers in your mouth, you don’t know where those fingers have been.” Of course the child knows exactly where their fingers have been. After all the fingers are part of his or her body. It’s a metaphor and one that works.
So I for one will give the bible break on this one. Still it’s fun to do the math. It’s not as fun to think about what 500 swimming pools worth of dead birds would smell like, in the desert, surrounded by people experiencing a great plague. I ever get a time machine I don’t think I’ll be visiting Kibroth Hattaavah (the graves of gluttony), no matter how hungry I am for pheasant.